Let’s Cut Dissections From the Agenda

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Issue 13, Volume 112

By Ushoshi Das 

Cover Image

In sixth grade, my science teacher plopped a massive plastic bag full of squids onto the lab desk. At each table, we had a few scalpels, tweezers, scissors, and disposal gloves and a lot of paper towels laid out. My group got the smallest squid, and we were slightly disappointed. Three other groups even found fish in their squid. Despite our group not making the same discovery and the slight odor, it was fun to learn about the body system of the squid.

After the lab, my class was told that we would perform more dissections in high school. This news sounded exciting until one day my older sister came home from school, upset because she had to dissect a pregnant rat. It turns out that high schools alone dissect around six million vertebrate animals every year—where do schools get all of these animals?

Many are bred in biological supply houses, which sell these animals to schools. Fetal pigs, a common dissection subject in biology labs, are often sent from slaughterhouses where pregnant pigs are killed for meat and their fetuses are cut out and sent to the supply houses. Random source dealers collect abandoned animals from shelters and pounds. Rabbits, foxes, and minks are often skinned at fur ranches and then sent to these supply houses, while animals like cats are frequently brutally killed, sometimes being drowned or having their throats slit. These animals are later purchased in other countries and then shipped to the United States. Many animals used for dissections are removed from their natural habitats. According to Animalearn, about 900 thousand frogs were caught in Mexico for just one company over three years. These were taken to the US and killed for use in school labs.

These animals are also preserved with chemical preservatives like formaldehyde and formalin, which pollute water and soil. This consequence isn’t the only moral issue with getting animals for dissection. Many of these animals come from cruel facilities that abuse them first. Fur houses participate in the unethical practice of killing an animal solely for its fur, devaluing the animal’s life solely for human benefit. However, as fetal pigs would be thrown out if they weren’t sent to labs, using animals for scientific benefit is a slightly better alternative. But there is no reason to kill these animals just for dissections, and the methods used to maintain the body structures for dissections are extremely harmful.

Another popular lab studies how worms regenerate—replace and heal body parts, and even form new organisms when cut apart entirely—very quickly. These worms may not necessarily feel pain, but chopping them up can teach children to devalue the lives of animals.

Many students do not want to perform dissections and vivisections. Some studies suggest that students don’t pursue careers in biology because they believe they have to continue doing dissections to continue their studies. Often, students experience guilt because they feel that the animals are being killed just so they can learn.

New York State passed a law in 2011 stating that students must be informed of their right to refuse dissections without an effect on their grades. However, this legislation only addressed students’ discomfort for dissecting animals and didn’t contribute to helping the actual animals who are being killed. Dissections help us learn about and visualize how the different body structures work together, but killing animals specifically for dissections is completely brutal. We cannot use animals that have died from natural causes because their bodies have already started to decay, but with today’s technology, we have several alternatives to learn about body systems.

In elementary school, my class used computer simulations of owl pellets, which are regurgitated bits of owl food that often contain structures such as mouse skeletons, instead of an actual dissection. The simulation helped us visualize different anatomical structures and learn about the owl digestive system without disrupting the environment or harming any animals. Simulations are quite eco-friendly because there is no need for harmful preservatives. It can be helpful, though, to be able to physically separate the different parts of an animal.

Thus, another alternative to dissecting animals is dissecting synthetic models (so they are again formaldehyde-free and formalin-free), which are designed to look and feel like the actual animal. The SynFrog is a frog dissection model that looks like a female frog, with all the organs and even eggs as part of the reproductive system. Formaldehyde often discolors body tissues and changes textures, while a synthetic model shows the frog as if it is alive. It also shows the “normal” body systems, which is useful for comparative anatomy, because it doesn’t have any disorders that an actual frog might have. These synthetic frogs are pretty expensive (starting from $150), but theoretically, they can be reused if students replace all of the organs. This method would be a much more ethical, though still hands-on, alternative to dissecting animals.

Dissecting and vivisecting animals can lead to desensitization. There have been videos of people disrespecting dissection bodies, even one of a teacher juggling three frogs that were soon to be dissected. These animals are usually brutally killed and inhumanely treated, and continuing to kill millions of them is completely immoral, especially because there are so many valid alternatives.